Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, p.22Edward Abbey
This natural tunnel is pure rock, completely devoid of sand, soil and any trace of vegetation. The walls that tower above are so close to one another, overhanging and interlocking, that I cannot see the sky. Through a golden glow of indirect, reflected sunlight I proceed until I come to a very large grotto or chamber, somewhat like the one described by Powell, where a plunge pool and waterfall check any further advance.
Here the canyon walls are a little wider, permitting the sun, for perhaps a couple of hours during the summer day, to shine directly down into this cul-de-sac. A rivulet of clear water pours into the pool; glints and flecks of light reflected from its agitated surface dance over the dark-golden walls of the glen. Lichens are growing there, green, red, orange, and along the seep line are beds of poison ivy, scarlet monkeyflower, maidenhair fern, death camas, helleborine orchid and small pale yellow columbines. There are no trees or shrubs, for the sunlight is too brief.
The sun is gleaming on the pool, on the foam, on the transparent waterfall. I dive in, swim under the fall and take a soapless shower, lie on the rock in a patch of sunshine and gaze up at the small irregular fragment of blue which forms the sky in this place. Then I return through the tunnel to camp and companion.
Has this particular canyon been seen and named by earlier river-runners? No doubt it has, but I find no evidence to dispel the illusion that I may be the first ever to have entered here. And probably the last.
After a lunch of refried pinto beans and dehydrated apricots—a piquant combination—we climb into our double boat and float onward. Since we have missed Music Temple I am more determined than ever that we must not pass Forbidden Canyon and the trail to Rainbow Bridge, climax and culmination of any trip into Glen Canyon.
We stay close to the south and east shore of the river, despite the ferocious afternoon sun, investigating each side canyon that we come to. In one of these I accidentally start a brush fire, and am nearly cooked alive. Sheer carelessness—a gust of wind carries a flaming piece of paper into the dried-out tangle of a willow thicket; the flames spread explosively; in a minute the mouth of the canyon is choked with smoke and fire and there is nothing I can do but get out of there, quick, as the flames rush down through the jungle toward Ralph, waiting for me in the tethered boats.
He is all ready to cast off when I appear, about ten feet in front of the onrushing sheet of fire, running. I push the boats off and roll in; we paddle away as hard as we can from the fiery shore, the final wild flare of heat. With generous tact Ralph does not even ask for an explanation. You can see a photograph of what I did in Eliot Porter’s beautiful book on Glen Canyon, The Place That No One Knew.
“Hot in there,” I say, though Ralph has asked no questions.
“So I noticed.”
“Had an accident.”
“Is that right?”
Shakily I tamp my pipe and fumble through the pockets of my shirt. All gone.
“Here,” he says. “Have a match.”
The river carries us past more side canyons, each of which I inspect for signs of a trail, a clue to Rainbow Bridge. But find nothing, so far, though we know we’re getting close. We can see in the canyon distance, not far ahead, the southern tip of the Kaiparowits Plateau—the landmark to guide by when seeking the way to Rainbow Bridge.
We bounce over a series of minor ripples and the river picks up speed. There is a corresponding excitement in the sky: the storm that has seemed potential for days is gathering above in definite form—wild gray scuds of vapor, anvil-headed cumuli-nimbi, rumbles of thunder coming closer.
From up ahead comes the familiar freight-train roar of white water again. A new and formidable canyon opens on the left, with a broad delta of pebbled beach, mud banks, rocks and boulders and driftwood issuing fanwise from its mouth. The boulders, carried down from the flanks of Navajo Mountain, cause the rapids which lie before us.
A little wiser now, learning from experience, we do not battle the current but rest until we are close to the rapids, then with a sudden furious effort paddle into the backwash near the shore and have no trouble making a landing in the shallows.
Ralph starts supper. I pull on boots and go exploring. I find a trail but it’s a poor one, little more than a deer path, which peters out completely a mile up-canyon. There are ponds of fresh water on the canyon floor; I refill the canteens and return to the boats.
The wind by this time has risen to a magnificent howl, the sky is purple, and jags of lightning strike at Navajo Point, the remote crag two thousand feet above the river on the north side. Cold rain spatters on the hot sand of the beach, raising little puffs of dust and steam. Rock and driftwood and the flashing underside of leaves gleam with a strange, wild, shifting light from the stormy sky.
We rig the tarpaulins into a tent, preparing for rain, and eat our supper of pancakes on which we pour a sauce of stewed raisins, in place of the syrup we haven’t got. Very good. Filling, anyhow. Afterwards, tea and tobacco.
We sit outside our tent, enjoying the weather. After a week of clear skies, and the heat and glare of the relentless sun, the cool wind and the sprinkling of hard cold raindrops on our bare heads and bare bodies feel good.
The heavy rain we’ve been anticipating fails to come. We pile our baggage under the canvas shelter and unroll our sleeping bags in a hollow among the white dunes, under the open sky. Falling asleep, I see a handful of stars blinking through a break in the racing clouds.
A red dawn in the east, cloud banks on fire with the rising sun. I bathe in the cold river, do my laundry, and build a fire for our breakfast: dried pea soup and tea bags. The last box of raisins I have set aside for lunch. Stores seem to be getting low—from now on it’ll be catfish or nothing.
Onto the river and through the whirlpools, we glide without mishap into quiet water. Our little boats are holding up well; despite all the rocks we’ve bounced them off and over, despite the sand and snags we’ve dragged them over, they have yet to sustain a puncture or spring a single leak. Aye, but the voyage is not over—shouldn’t mention these things.
Within a short distance we come to another big tributary canyon on the port side or southerly shore of the river. Navajo Point, the final outcropping of the Kaiparowits Plateau, is directly overhead. This canyon too has tumbled boulders into the river, forming one more stretch of rough water. As before we take advantage of the eddies close to the rapids, swinging briefly upstream and then into the flooded mouth of the side canyon. We tie up on a mud bank and get out to investigate.
At once I spot the unmistakable signs of tourist culture—tin cans and tinfoil dumped in a fireplace, a dirty sock dangling from a bush, a worn-out tennis shoe in the bottom of a clear spring, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and bottlecaps everywhere. This must be it, the way to Rainbow Bridge; it appears that we may have come too late. Slobivius americanus has been here first.
Well, no matter. We had expected this. We know with certainty that we are now only a few hours—by motorboat—from the Glen Canyon dam site. I also happen to know that the natural bridge itself is still six miles up the canyon by foot trail, a distance regarded as semiastronomical by the standard breed of mechanized tourist. His spoor will not be seen much beyond the campground.
We set up a camp of our own well beyond the motorboaters’ midden, near the little stream that tumbles down the rocky canyon floor, coming from the great redrock wilderness beyond. The trail to Rainbow Bridge, passing close by, is rough, rocky, primitive. Newcomb, who has brought no boots, decides to go fishing. We divide the box of raisins and the last of the dried apricots. I stuff my share into my shirt pockets and lace up the boots, hang a canteen over my shoulder and march off.
The trail leads beside the clear-running brook and a chain of emerald pools, some of them big enough to go swimming in, with the water so transparent I can see the shadows of the schools of minnows passing over the grains of sand in the bottom of the basins. Along the canyon walls are the seeps and springs that feed the stream, each with the charact
A hot day. Delicate, wind-whipped clouds flow across the burning blue, moving in perfect unison like the fish in the pools below. I stop at one of the largest of these pools, undress and plunge in. Happily I flounder about, terrifying the minnows, and float on my back and spout cheekfuls of water at the sun.
On to the Bridge:
I come to a fork in the canyon, the main branch continuing to the right, a deep dark narrow defile opening to the left. There are no trail markers but even on the naked sandstone I can make out the passage of human feet, boot-shod, leading into the unlikely passage on the left. And so I follow.
Here too a stream is flowing, much smaller than the other, through smoothly sculptured grooves, scoops and potholes in the rock. I go by the dripping little springs that feed it and the stream diminishes to a rill, to a trickle, to a series of stagnant waterholes shrinking under the sun. Frogs and toads will be croaking here, fireflies winking, when I return.
Hot and tired I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.
Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference.
Out of the shade, into the heat. I tramp on through the winding gorge, through the harsh brittle silence. In this arid atmosphere sounds do not fade, echo or die softly but are extinguished suddenly, sharply, without the slightest hint of reverberation. The clash of rock against rock is like a shot—abrupt, exaggerated, toneless.
I round the next bend in the canyon and all at once, quite unexpectedly, there it is, the bridge of stone.
Quite unexpectedly, I write. Why? Certainly I had faith, I knew the bridge would be here, against all odds. And I knew well enough what it would look like—we’ve all seen the pictures of it a hundred times. Nor am I disappointed in that vague way we often feel, coming at last upon a long-imagined spectacle. Rainbow Bridge seems neither less nor greater than what I had foreseen.
My second sensation is the feeling of guilt. Newcomb. Why did I not insist on his coming? Why did I not grab him by the long strands of his savage beard and haul him up the trail, bearing him when necessary like Christopher would across the stream, stumbling from stone to stone, and dump him finally under the bridge, leaving him there to rot or to crawl back to the river if he could? No man could have asked for a lovelier defenestration.
Through God’s window into eternity.
Oh well. I climb to the foot of the east buttress and sign for Ralph and myself in the visitors’ register. He is the 14,467th and I the next to enter our names in this book since the first white men came to Rainbow Bridge in 1909. Not many, for a period of more than half a century, in the age above all of publicity. But then it’s never been an easy journey. Until now.
The new dam, of course, will improve things. If ever filled it will back water to within sight of the Bridge, transforming what was formerly an adventure into a routine motorboat excursion. Those who see it then will not understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was an integral part. When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.
All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity? Words, words—the problem makes me thirsty. There is a spring across the canyon, another seep under a ledge below the west footing of the Bridge. I climb down and up the other side and help myself to one of the tins someone has left there, collecting water under the dripping moss.
The heat is stunning. I rest for a while in the shade, dream and sleep through the worst of the midday glare. When the sun passes beyond the rim I get up and start to return to Newcomb and our camp.
But am diverted by a faint pathway which looks as if it might lead up out of the canyon, above Rainbow Bridge. Late afternoon, the canyon filling with shadows—I should not try it. I take it anyway, climbing a talus slope and then traversing a long inclined bench that pinches out in thin air at the base of a higher cliff. Impossible to go on—but a fixed rope dangles there, hanging from some belaying point out of sight above. I test the rope, it seems to be well anchored, and with its help and a few convenient toeholds and fingerholds I work my way to the top of the pitch. From there it’s a long but easy scramble to the rim of the canyon.
Now I am in the open again, out of the underworld. From up here Rainbow Bridge, a thousand feet below, is only a curving ridge of sandstone of no undue importance, a tiny object lost in the vastness and intricacy of the canyon systems which radiate from the base of Navajo Mountain. Of more interest is the view to the north, east and west, revealing the general lay of the land through which we have voyaged in our little boats.
The sun, close to the horizon, shines through the clear air beneath the cloud layers, illuminating in soft variations of rose, vermillion, umber, slate-blue, the complex features and details, defined sharply by shadow, of the Glen Canyon landscape. I can see the square-edged mesas beyond the junction of the San Juan and Colorado, the plateau-mountains of south-central Utah, and farthest away, a hundred miles or more by line of sight, the five peaks of the Henry Mountains, including Mount Ellsworth near Hite where our journey began.
Off in the east an isolated storm is boiling over the desert, a mass of lavender clouds bombarding the earth with lightning and trailing curtains of rain. The distance is so great that I cannot hear the thunder. Between here and there and me and the mountains is the canyon wilderness, the hoodoo land of spire and pillar and pinnacle where no man lives, and where the river flows, unseen, through the blue-black trenches in the rock.
Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In the doctrine of the geologists with their scheme of ages, eons and epochs all is flux, as Heraclitus taught, but from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless. In all my years in the canyon country I have yet to see a rock fall, of its own volition, so to speak, aside from floods. To convince myself of the reality of change and therefore time I will sometimes push a stone over the edge of a cliff and watch it descend and wait—lighting my pipe—for the report of its impact and disintegration to return. Doing my bit to help, of course, aiding natural processes and verifying the hypotheses of geological morphology. But am not entirely convinced.
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear—the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break. Turning Plato and Hegel on their heads I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.
Under the desert sun, in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible hum
The sun is touching the fretted tablelands on the west. It seems to bulge a little, to expand for a moment, and then it drops—abruptly—over the edge. I listen for a long time.
Through twilight and moonlight I climb down to the rope, down to the ledge, down to the canyon floor below Rainbow Bridge. Bats flicker through the air. Fireflies sparkle by the waterseeps and miniature toads with enormous voices clank and grunt and chant at me as I tramp past their ponds down the long trail back to the river, back to campfire and companionship and a midnight supper.
We are close to the end of our journey. In the morning Ralph and I pack our gear, load the boats, and take a last lingering look at the scene which we know we will never again see as we see it now: the great Colorado River, wild and free, surging past the base of the towering cliffs, roaring through the boulders below the mouth of Forbidden Canyon; Navajo Point and the precipice of the Kaiparowits Plateau thousands of feet above, beyond the inner walls of the canyon; and in the east ranks of storm-driven cumulus clouds piled high on one another, gold-trimmed and blazing in the dawn.
Ralph takes a photograph, puts the camera back into the waterproof pouch which he hangs across his chest, and climbs into his boat. We shove off.
This is the seventh day—or is it the ninth?—of our dreamlike voyage. Late in the afternoon, waking from a deep reverie, I observe, as we glide silently by, a pair of ravens roosting on a dead tree near the shore, watching us pass. I wonder where we are. I ask Ralph; he has no idea and cares less, cares only that the journey not yet end.
I light up the last of my tobacco, and watch the blue smoke curl and twist and vanish over the swirling brown water. We are rounding a bend in the river and I see, far ahead on the left-hand shore, something white, rigid, rectangular, out of place. Our boats drift gradually closer and we see the first billboard ever erected in Glen Canyon. Planted in rocks close to the water, the sign bears a message and it is meant for us.
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